South Azerbaijan (Guney Azerbaycan)
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Azeri provinces in Iran - South Azerbaijan / Guney Azerbaycan - xaritaSouth Azerbaijan comprises three provices currently part of the Islamic Republic of Iran: Western Azerbaijan, with its capital in Uromiyeh, Eastern Azerbaijan, with its capital in Tabriz and Ardebil, whose capital is also called Ardebil. A forth Iranian province Zanjan, with the capital in the city of the same name, also has a dominant Azeri population and there are important Azeri communities in and around Hamadan, in Tehran, around Qom and Saveh, in the Khorasan province, and are scattered throughout many other parts of Iran. The most conservative numbers point to 13 million Azeris in Iran (often called 'Tork'), but more realistic estimates indicate about 30 million speakers in the Islamic Republic.

The 3 provinces that make South Azerbaijan represent about 30 percent of the Iranian land mass, an area larger than the Republic of Azerbaijan itself. The population, estimated at around 10 million is also bigger.

Ethnic Azerbaijan: Republic + South Azerbaijan (Iran)The separation of south and north was made permanent with the treaty of Turkmanchay, signed between Russia and Persia in 1828. The Azeris north of the river Araz were left inside the Russian empire, and apart from brief periods of anarchay stayed with Russian until the breakup of the Soviet Union, when north-Azerbaijan became independent as the Republic of Azerbaijan. Those south of the Araz remain today part of the Islamic Republic of Iran, which suceeded to the Persian monarchy.

Pishevari flag (41-46)The two halves of the country were last briefly together during World War II,  when Stalin with the support of the western allies occupied the north of Iran and tried to create a "Democratic Republic of Azerbaijan", using a mix of nationalist and communist ideals. However, after the end of the war international pressure on the Soviet Union to leave mounted and the Red Army retreated to the norhern bank of the Araz.

Jafar PishevariThe Democratic Republic of Azerbaijan led by Jafar Pishevari was left at the mercy of the Iranian army and soon collapsed. Many in the south Azeri intelligentsia escaped to the north, fuelling a movement for reunification which didn't displease the Soviet authorities. The continuation of the Pishevari republic was unthinkable for the Iranian government headed by Ghavam Sultaneh, particularly after Pishevari reached an alliance with the Kurdish independentists of the Mahabad republic.

This short period of shared history reinforced the links between the two areas, creating a culture of "longing" for reunification, reflected in literature, music and ever more on the political speech of some sectors on both sides of the border. The fact that the red army acted in an unusually correct way towards the population while the returning Iranian army committed all sorts of crimes also contributed to this ambition.
Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi  - last Shah of Iran - Aryamehr, Light of the AryansAfter returning to Iranian sovereignty, Azeris had the use of their language banned, under Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlevi, until the advent of the islamic revolution of 1979. However after 1983, with the consolidation of the Ayatollah's regime the calls for autonomy were suppressed and several publications in the Azeri language were closed.

In the last years of the soviet union the demonstrations in the ASSR in favour of closer links with south Azerbaijan were frequent, reaching even the point of burning the border fences.

Burning the Azerbaijan / South Azerbaijan borderParadoxically, with the independence of the Republic of Azerbaijan, the question of South Azerbaijan became less important in Baku, as the conflict with Armenia took to centre stage. Although former president Elchibey made some remarks on reunification, during recent years the Azeri government hasn't raised the issue with Iran, since for the Republic of Azerbaijan it is obviously better to have Iran as a friend.

In Iran, ethnic Azeris have a history of being well integrated into the highest power structures Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, for one, is Azeri as well as a legacy of frequently pushing the Iranian government hard on its policies.

Iran: ethnic map (479K!!)The current nationalist movement, which has gathered strength since Azerbaijan's emergence, has been hamstrung by an internal lack of unity and threats from the Iranian government. Currently the main voice for the Azeri population in the Islamic Republic is the National Liberation Movement of Southern Azerbaijan (NLMSA), headed by Piruz Dilenchy.  The organization was created in 1996, when six Azeri political parties merged. The Iranian government has accused Turkey of being involved with the NLMSA. The movement is quite vocal in it struggle and has organized several demonstrations recently, mainly in Tabriz, which were violently broke up by the Iranian police.

Caucasus: ethnic mapRecently the Azeri population and the Iranian authorities have clashed over the election of Mahmood-Ali Chehregani to the Teheran parliament. He is an outspoken defender of Azeri rights and an opposer to forced 'Persianization' of South Azerbaijan. The Iranian authorities have barred him from taking his seat in parliament and have even been accused of torture.

The US has tried to tap into those ethnic tensions as a possible pressure point for promoting change within Iran. The Americans established an "Office of Iranian Affairs"; committed $75 million to promoting democracy in Iran; installed an "Iran watcher" in Baku, as well as other cities near Iran; and helped Azerbaijan build a radar station on the Iranian border for the stated purpose of monitoring the Caspian Sea.

Tabriz - East Azerbaijan, Iran: Clock / Saat Tower - Tabriz City Hall - designed by the Armenian engineer Avedis Ohanjanian with a little help of Third Reich technology - HQ of the Azerbaijan People's Government in 1945-6 - photo by N.MahmudovaIf you are going to visit South Azerbaijan probably you will need an Iranian Visa (if you are European you can get it at the border without an invitation).
see also: history, Uromiyeh, Tabriz, Ardebil, Zanjan, images of Iran, visas to Iran, maps, places, summary
A to Z of Azerbaijan / A dan Z ye Azerbaycan